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  • Nicholas Cook

Is Plastic Bad?

Updated: Oct 21, 2021



In 1990, when Nelson Mandela emerged after 27 years of incarceration, he ventured back to his ancestral village and was stunned to observe the impact of plastic during his absence. As recounted in his autobiography, “When I was young, the village was tidy, the water pure and the grass green and unsullied as far as the eye could see… But now the village was upswept, the water polluted and the countryside littered with plastic bags and wrappers. We had not known of plastic when I was a boy and though it surely improved life in some ways, its presence in Qunu appeared to me to be a kind of blight” (1).


Plastic is undoubtedly a material that has improved the quality of our lives in immeasurable ways. It is integral to the device you are reading this on right now, it helps to feed us, to hydrate us, to house us, to keep us safe, to educate us, to transport us, for many of us to see, and for some, plastic parts inside our bodies help to keep us alive. It is truly a miracle material, strong, long-lasting, adaptable, inert, waterproof, and moldable into almost any shape we can imagine.


Without any doubt plastic is an excellent material that has made our lives richer, safer, and longer. So why is it seen in such a negative light? The answer of course is our profligate consumption of Single-Use Plastics, as observed with such clarity by Nelson Mandela, and for which the use today has, to some observers, reached a point of insanity.


In 2017, researchers attempted to make an accounting of all plastic that has ever been produced in human history and the results were truly shocking (2). Very large numbers do not communicate much, but here is an easy-to-digest fact from that paper that we can relate to:


“Over half of all plastic ever manufactured was produced just in the 13 previous years”


Since then, our production and use of plastic has only accelerated, and there is no slowdown in sight. Clearly this growth is totally unsustainable, and the issue has become urgent with planetary-level impacts that have become visible within our own human lifetimes.


The same report cites that:

  • only 9% of the plastic ever produced has been recycled

  • 12% has been incinerated

  • 60% has been sent to landfill or discarded to the environment

  • packaging is the single largest use of plastic

Recycling clearly helps, but recycling plastic has its own challenges. To start with, there are many types of plastic, and most recycling processes require the plastics to be sorted into their respective types. Unbelievably in 2021, most of this sorting is done by hand, even in the developed world.


Arguably, a more difficult hurdle is that all recycling requires destroying the shape that made the part valuable in the first place – to be recycled it is sorted, crushed, ground up, sorted again, melted, and then re-processed to make new (and often less valuable) objects.


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a highly influential, international, non-profit foundation that promotes a transition to a circular economy, recognises this in promoting reuse rather than recycling in its Vision for a New Plastics Economy (3.) It states:

  • While improving recycling is crucial, we cannot recycle our way out of the plastics issues we currently face.

  • Wherever relevant, reuse business models should be explored as a preferred ‘inner loop’, reducing the need for single-use plastic packaging.

Of course, reuse and recycling are not incompatible. If we take a single-use plastic object and reuse it, its environmental footprint per-use is halved. If we reuse it a hundred times its per-use footprint is just 1% of the original, and at the end, its value for recycling is the same as after its initial use.


Plastic bottles, and PET bottles for Carbonated Soft Drinks in particular, are a very visible contributor to the overall problem of plastic waste. The Water-Witch™ turns this waste into something immensely useful for society, and it will be no small achievement to reuse even a very small proportion of this post-consumer waste stream. However, there is another particularly important value: by creating an exceptional and life-affirming use for these bottles, we draw attention to the fact that there is great value in them, and that they should be returned whenever possible to unlock a second life, either through reuse or recycling.


With the Water-Witch™, we can retrieve bottles from the recycling stream, use them many times, and at the end of life, both bottles and the Water-Witch™ can be sent for recycling using the same recycling channels as bottles fresh from consumers.


There are many potential uses for post-consumer carbonated soft drink bottles, but it is very hard to imagine something more motivating to ordinary (and extraordinary) people than to re-purpose their waste bottles to help grow food, establish trees in arid environments, and save large quantities of water.


Water is Life. Never waste a drop.





References

1. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. 1995

2. Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances 19 Jul 2017: Vol. 3, no. 7


3. “A Circular Economy for Plastic in Which It Never Becomes Waste.” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2021, www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/our-work/activities/new-plastics-economy.

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